the national interest

Congress Exempts Itself From Obamacare! Or Something!

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted before his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on February 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Facing a divided Congress, Obama is expected to focus his speech on new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy.
Health care for all. Tiny American flag pins for most. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

The latest dastardly turn in President Obama’s lawless implementation of his doomed health-care law is that he has — get this — exempted Congress. If you are following conservative news sources, you are privy to this latest outrage, which is only the latest evidence that Obama knows the law will fail and is protecting his cronies from the damage. Indignant conservatives’ reactions are everywhere, including The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Byron York.

The episode described here really is a useful synecdoche for Obamacare. What it represents, though, is the toxic combination of ignorance and bad faith that has characterized the right’s approach to Obamacare.

Ezra Klein explained the reality behind this myth when it first surfaced a few months ago. Republican senator Charles Grassley introduced an amendment into the debate over the law requiring Congress and its staff to get its own insurance under Obamacare. It was a message amendment — that is, an amendment designed not to actually change the law in a way Grassley wanted but to provide the grist for a talking point for opponents of the law. The talking point would be that those fat cats in Washington are forcing their laws down yer throat but won’t live by the same laws. Democrats surprised Grassley by accepting the amendment. That’s where the trouble began.

The inherent problem is that the entire premise of the amendment is false. The premise was that Obamacare is going to wreck the whole health-care system, forcing decent Americans to lose their hard-earned employer health insurance and be herded on to grim, socialistic health-care exchanges. That is false: The law was designed to leave virtually the entire employer-sponsored health-insurance system alone and create subsidized coverage for the people who don’t get insurance through their job (or through Medicare or some other government plan) already.

I am looking at the big picture here. Photo: The Washington Post/2010 The Washington Post

So Grassley’s amendment created a situation for government workers that Republicans claimed, falsely, the law would create for everybody else: forcing them off their employer insurance and on to the exchanges. Grassley’s amendment didn’t even attempt to design a coherent way of changing health-care worker benefits, because, again, it wasn’t an attempt to reform health care for Congress and its staff — it was an attempt to furnish a talking point for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It yanked away the subsidized health insurance Congress and its staff get, essentially imposing a massive pay cut on those workers. Klein explained:

Large employers — defined in the law as employers with more than 100 employees — aren’t allowed onto the insurance exchanges until 2017, and only then if a state makes an affirmative decision to let them in.

But the federal government is the largest employer in the country. So Grassley’s amendment means that the largest employer in the country is required to put some of its employees — the ones working for Congress — on the exchanges. But the exchanges don’t have any procedures for handling premium contributions for large employers.

Obama’s solution to the dilemma was to administratively decide that those congressional employees would get their health care through the exchanges but that the federal government would keep up its same level of premium contributions. The law didn’t say the government could keep contributing to their health care, but it didn’t say it couldn’t either. (Law professor Nicholas Bagley explains why this move is legal.) Basically, Obama has patched up the ambiguously worded Grassley amendment and turned it into something performing the function it was supposed to serve. It puts Congress and its staff on the Obamacare health-insurance exchanges.

If you think, as Republicans do, the exchanges will be a train wreck, then Congress and its staff will soon be suffering a dire fate. But the punishment won’t be compounded by being packaged with an additional pay cut. And if you think the exchanges are likely to work out pretty well, at least in the states where the government isn’t sabotaging them, then it won’t be punishment at all.

The way conservatives are telling the story, though, is close to the opposite of this reality. York’s pithy summary is typical of the version circulating among conservative news (or news-esque) sites:

It appeared that members of Congress and their staff, who today have generous coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, would be subject to the same treatment as millions of Americans who will seek coverage on the Obamacare exchanges. That was a future Democrats simply could not accept; when they met with President Obama last week, the first thing they did was to ask him to exempt them from their own law. He did, and now members and staff will keep their generous coverage. Everybody else will have to hope for the best.

This is, at best, a badly garbled version of reality, and at worst a completely inverted one. Why would members of Congress and their staff get “the same treatment” as Americans seeking coverage on the exchanges? The exchanges are designed for people who don’t have insurance. The notion that Obama “exempted” “Democrats” from Obamacare is just bizarre, since Congress and its staff — both parties, not Democrats — will be on the exchanges. They’re just not getting a big pay cut along with it.

What conservatives think (or say) this episode represents — Democrats in Congress refusing to accept conditions they are forcing upon regular Americans — is false. The episode is actually symptomatic of the degree to which conservative fantasies about Obamacare can actually create their own, alternate reality.

Congress Exempt From Obamacare! Or Something!